How Jared Polis gets what he wants

Even in his youth, Colorado's Democratic nominee for governor was in a hurry

A young Jared Schutz — he changed his name when he was 25 — plays t-ball in San Diego in 1981. His mother, Susan, was the team's coach. (Photo courtesy of Susan Polis Schutz)

This is part of The Colorado Independent’s four-part series on Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. You can click directly to Part 2 (Polis’s entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state), Part 3 (Polis’s decade in Congress) or Part 4 (Polis’s run for governor), and you can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss his series on Jared Polis on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

Thirty-two years ago, before Jared Polis was admitted to Princeton at 16, before he hit it big as a 20-something entrepreneur, before he ran for Congress and governor, and before he changed his last name, there was little Jared Schutz, an 11-year-old with a high-pitched voice, skipping school to address the city council.

At that time of his life, Jared played almost daily in an urban canyon near his family’s home in the uppercrust San Diego community of La Jolla, and one day some neighbors came by to inform his parents that developers sought to build condominiums in the canyon. The neighbors wanted to know if the Schutzes would lend their voices to a neighborhood campaign opposing the project.

Jared’s parents, Steve and Susan, are private people, and they told the neighbors they’d sit out the fight. But once the neighbors left, Jared, who’d overheard the conversation, asked his mom if it’d be alright for him to get involved.

So with his parents’ blessing, the fifth-grader went to the council chambers and listened to the condo pitch.

“It was a bunch of high-powered lawyers and developers, and they argued there were snakes and skunks and garbage (in the canyon) and that it wasn’t a safe place,” Susan recalls.

“Jared stood up and said, ‘Have you ever been in the canyon? There’s no snakes, there’s no garbage.’ He said, ‘I walk in it and play in it every day after school. It’s a beautiful place to be.’”

He spoke for about 10 minutes, and the council later surprised everyone by siding with Jared. The local newspaper quoted the mayor saying it was “that young man’s” speech that made the difference.”

Boy in a hurry

In a purple state that has elected just one Republican governor since 1975, and amid an anticipated national blue wave, Jared Polis, the five-term Democratic congressman from Boulder, is widely expected to beat state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and take the governor’s mansion in November. He’s up seven points, according to a poll released Oct. 2, jointly conducted by Democratic firm Keating Research and Republican firm Magellan Strategies.

It’s a seat the 43 year old has coveted since he was in college, and this campaign is in many ways a natural culmination of his political career. He’s a preternaturally ambitious person who’s always had an eye on his next move, and who’s always had the money to help himself get there.

In other ways, it’s a bit of a surprise that Polis is even a contender. He’s a Boulderite, and that’s not necessarily a plus in a statewide race. He’s got a proven record of thinking and acting independently, and has on more than a couple occasions rankled fellow Democrats by going rogue. He’s a nerd who doesn’t dress well, isn’t a gripping public speaker and is rarely described as charismatic. He’s also gay and Jewish — two identities never before seen in a governor of Colorado.

Friends and family say that in the three decades since he took on the developers in southern California, Polis has barely changed — save for his last-name switch, which he made at 25, he says, to honor his grandmother.

Those closest to him say that Polis knows what he wants and then out-thinks and out-works everyone else to get it. Now that he’s made his millions, he also outspends the competition. The combination of smarts, strategy and sharp elbows has won him admirers and detractors, but most have learned not to underestimate him.

A few years after Polis spoke before the San Diego City Council, the teenager told his parents he wasn’t interested in college and instead wanted to go straight into politics. His parents — self-described ex-hippies who founded a greeting card company that Polis would later convert to a hugely valuable website — told him that wasn’t an option.

He compromised with them: He wouldn’t forgo college, but he would get it out of the way as soon as possible. At 16, he applied to Princeton because he’d heard the school had a great politics department, and he was accepted. He left La Jolla Country Day, the private school he’d attended since kindergarten, after his junior year.

Princeton, Polis says, “admitted me despite my age and despite not having a high school diploma at the time, because they felt I was ready, and they were right — I was ready, and I really thrived there.” He adds, of high school, “It would have felt like a waste to me if I had to spend another year there.”

By the time Polis got to Princeton, he’d already spent a lot of time inside college classrooms, his mom says. He’d taken graduate courses in history and politics at the University of California, San Diego, as a high school freshman and sophomore, on top of AP courses at La Jolla Country Day.

Jerry Flieschhacker, who taught Polis in AP history, told the La Jolla Light newspaper that the staff at Country Day used to joke that Polis was so driven that he’d probably end up in Congress by 30. They were off by two years; he was elected to represent Colorado’s 2nd House District at 32.

Polis entered Princeton in 1992 after his junior year of high school, and his pace didn’t slow in college, where, as a politics major, he stood out even among a class of high achievers who were all a year older.

“Like a lot of people, I was just trying to keep my head above water in college. Most people were trying to,” said Derek Kilmer, who was one of Polis’s classmates at Princeton and who’s now a congressman from Washington state. “The average class load was four classes, and Jared was the guy who was taking seven or eight classes in a semester. He was just super smart and really hard working.”

He didn’t skimp on the extra-curriculars, either. He was active in Jewish life on campus, in a fraternity, in the Princeton Juggling Club and in the model congress. He was also the communications director for the student government, though he only took that position after running unsuccessfully, at age 19, for student body president. A December 1994 article in the Daily Princetonian detailed his campaign platform, which included disrupting the “exclusive clique” he’d observed among student leaders and increasing student government transparency by opening closed-door sessions to the public and the press.

He lost in a landslide to David Calone, who later became a federal prosecutor and New York congressional candidate.

During the student election in the fall of Polis’s senior year, in his capacity as communications director, he helped facilitate what he claimed at the time was the world’s first online election. Polis declared in the Daily Princetonian that he wanted the student government “on the forefront of the information revolution.” It was 1995, three years before Google would launch.

Young millionaire

It was certainly true that Polis himself was on that forefront. He’s either founded or co-founded about 20 companies, and his first was American Information Systems, an early internet service provider operating mostly in the Chicago area. Polis and a couple friends started with a few servers in their dorms.

Princeton classmate Sue Suh, who’s now a talent recruiter in New York, says Polis demonstrated a deep understanding of the internet at a time when such expertise was almost unheard of.

“Our freshman year, we walked in and our residential advisors took us down to the computer cluster and said, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called email that we’re setting up for everybody, so you’ll learn more about that,’” Suh says. “With Jared, not only did he get email and the whole dot-com thing, but he was always looking at how to scale up a really big idea to impact as many people as possible in a positive way.”

A California company bought AIS for $23 million in 1998, two years after Polis graduated. At a time when most of his classmates were trying to make good impressions at their first jobs, Polis was, at 23 years old, a self-made millionaire. He’d gotten into Harvard Law School, but he deferred enrollment to stick with business, and never ended up attending.

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Jonathan King, who also worked at AIS, said the money didn’t seem to change Polis.

“He’s not walking around with flashy things. He’s not someone who’s focused on money. He’s much more interested in building,” says King, who’s now a tech executive in St. Louis. “He was operating at an early age at a senior executive level, and he really carried himself that way. And he literally is the same guy today as he was then.”

Polis doesn’t, in many respects, carry himself like one of the richest Congress members in history, with a net worth that’s estimated to be over $300 million. But it can’t be said that he isn’t focused on money; he’s long been interested in and unusually skilled at enriching himself, and others, in unexpected ways. In high school, Polis says, he bought scrap metal and other used government goods — including, once, an order of 1,000 rubber galoshes — and flipped them for profit. He also spent a summer in Moscow trading commodities at age 17.

During college, in between the heavy coursework and the clubs and the internet business, Polis found small opportunities to make big money. In 1994, for example, he bought a rare collection of postage stamps, then sold them for more than $1,000. He called it “blind luck” — he bought the stamps for mailing purposes, then discovered the collection had just been recalled due to an error — but also told the Daily Princetonian, “I sort of keep track of the stamp world.”

Polis, King says, is driven.

“He uses up every piece of his day, and he has for a long time,” King said. “He’s always been busy and going and productive.”

He even found a way to monetize his own last name.

He was born Jared Polis Schutz and, ahead of his 25th birthday, announced to his friends that he was going to change his name. He kept everyone in suspense about what the new name would be, and organized a fundraiser around the announcement, bringing in $40,000 for leukemia research before revealing the anti-climax that his new name would be Jared Schutz Polis.

“It was kind of a letdown to people,” he laughs today.

“You’re crazy”

Polis was born in Boulder in 1975, the eldest of three. His younger siblings, Jordanna and Jorian, were also high achievers who graduated from Harvard and MIT, respectively. Jorian lives on a farm in Virginia and Jordanna works with early-stage companies and splits time between Boston and Boulder.

His parents moved to San Diego when he was 5, but the family returned to Colorado regularly, spending time both in Boulder and at the family cabin, which they still own, in Vail. (Polis also has a home in Weld County and says he’s selling his D.C. home, but declined to answer whether he owns homes elsewhere.) Every summer, his family would ride in an RV between southern California and Colorado, stopping along the way at Hopi and Navajo reservations.

Jared Polis graduates from Princeton University in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Susan Polis Schutz)

Unlike their eldest, Steve and Susan Schutz aren’t naturally comfortable with either entrepreneurship or being the centers of attention. But they stumbled into both when Jared was young, as their greeting card company, Blue Mountain Arts, gained some prominence and sued Hallmark Cards for $50 million in the mid-’80s for allegedly copying its designs. They won an undisclosed amount of money in a settlement with Hallmark. “We bought the place in California mainly because Stephen and I were getting pretty well known, and we don’t like to be known,” Susan said.

Steve holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and, like Polis, is an expert with computers. When Jared was a senior in college, Steve wanted to say hello to his son with an electronic greeting card — a simple project that flashed digitally with a happy birthday message.

There was money to be made there, Polis recognized. In 1999, just one year after selling American Information Systems, amid excitement over the enormous potential of e-cards, Polis led the sale of his family’s business to Excite@Home for $780 million. It was one of the most extraordinary cash-outs of the dot-com era, and the acquisition turned out to be a flop for Excite@Home, which flipped Blue Mountain two years later for just $35 million. That deal made Polis even richer, and he didn’t stop there. Best known among his dozen-plus other successful businesses is ProFlowers.

In 2000, when ProFlowers was a seed of an idea, Polis phoned Bernd Lutz, a German man 20 years his senior who’d made his name as an early pioneer in online payment processing. Polis flew Lutz out to San Diego, and the two of them, plus Steve, went for a meal at a country club. Seated at a poolside restaurant, they mapped out Polis’s vision on paper napkins.

The idea was to make it easier for people to buy floral arrangements by connecting them directly to growers. But this would require a lot of tricky logistics — tying in with FedEx’s systems and being able to track pick-up and delivery in real-time. It’s the sort of technology that, today, anyone can use to order lunch or buy a book on Amazon. But 18 years ago, it was only early in establishment.

“I said, ‘Jared, you’re crazy,’” Lutz recalls. “We’re nobody, and this technology isn’t even out yet. Nobody’s done this before.”

Polis was vindicated in the years to come. ProFlowers sold for $477 million in 2006. Lutz now reflects on how the “crazy” idea turned into nearly half a billion dollars.

“Jared is the person that has a big vision for something that challenges the status quo. It’s never too far-fetched. It can be done with the right people, with the right resources,” Lutz says. “He’s very deliberate. He never throws too much money or people at it.”

The same year Polis, Steve and Lutz scribbled their business plan on napkins, Polis was plotting an entirely different sort of venture — one in which he would prove willing to throw down unprecedented amounts of money.

Fourteen years had passed since he’d told his parents he wanted to go into politics, and, having made more money at 25 than he could possibly spend, he decided it was time.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 2 to include new polling numbers

This is part of The Colorado Independent’s four-part series on Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic nominee for governor. You can click directly to Part 2 (Polis’s entry into Colorado politics and his role in the Democratic takeover of the state), Part 3 (Polis’s decade in Congress) or Part 4 (Polis’s run for governor), and you can also listen to reporter Alex Burness discuss his series on Jared Polis on The Colorado Independent’s Indycator podcast.

 

10 COMMENTS

  1. He is by far the most arrogant person I have ever met. I was subbing as a receptionist one day when he came into my company. At the time he was on the State Board of Education. He came in and treated me like I was less than and expected me to know who he was. I came away from that short interaction thinking he was an arrogant _____.

    • I agree. He is completely enamored with himself. Money does not necessarily make the man. To quote John Maxwell, “You build trust with others each time you choose: Integrity Over Image, Truth Over Convenience, or Honor Over Personal Gain”. He fails on all counts. He also thinks it is okay to physically assault an employee. In addition, he is not in favor of the “Right to Work” laws. He thinks Unions should take advantage of workers. Jared Polis Schutz is too liberal, even for Colorado.

  2. If you’re sobbing in public at work…you need therapy, not sympathy from strangers.

    Polis leads by 7 points less than six weeks out. If Walkkker ain’t desperate now, he will be shortly…so get ready for the ridiculousness.

  3. Whoever said money can’t but everything doesn’t know about politics.

    Polis, or, Schutz, has bought his way into politics, starting first in congress, where he had a seat gerrymandered for him, and, now, the governorship.

    Problem is, this trustafarian will make the rest of us poorer with his policies.

  4. ES …
    Holding on to a single interaction from sometime between 2001 and 2007 and judging a person by it indicates something to me … but probably not the message you want to send.

    • Who knows if it was a single interaction. People who resort to violence usually do it more than one. He just tries to intimidate them. The Higher Power will be his judge and jury.

  5. I’m dying to hear which dem policies are making us poorer.

    Oh by the way…how long did it take for deficit spending and trickle down to make an appearance after Obama left?

  6. Democrats make everyone poorer. They want to tax you out of existence and then make you dependent on the Government. My favorite recently was Obama taking credit for the improved economy. The 8 years he was in office was a living nightmare. Unemployment was high and taxes even higher. He blamed Bush for that. Now, he wants credit for the good things Trump has done. Trump does not even take a salary or charge the government for his wife’s ridiculous trips overseas. Every time he was on the news, he was on the golf course in Hawaii. He even helped Hillary cover up her trail of deception and deceit. Maybe he should go back to being a community activist (his only qualification) in Chicago.

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